Who doesn’t love the White Stag? Majestic, noble, and pure, it is the traditional, powerful symbol of Christ, the Peace and Power of the Father. We meet it (him?) not only in Western tapestry and iconographic tradition — alongside, notably, St. Godric — but in popular fantasy as well. Readers of this site are familiar enough with the appearance of the White Stag at the end of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe as well as in the Harry Potter stories, especially in the climax of Prisoner of Azkaban and, his mate, the cervus fugitivus, in the pivotal Forest of Dean scene of Deathly Hallows, that I don’t need to explain his importance in great story telling.
What I learned recently, though, is that the stag is known in the Orthodox Church at least as the great enemy of serpents. The stag likes to lunch on the low-crawlers. This was revealed to me in that most unexpected of places, a sermon, at the Feast of Theophany. With the Deacon’s permission, I share that exploration of the meaning of Theophany (represented, I think, in the Ron the Baptist scene alluded to above) in which the stag symbolism is explained. Enjoy!
Saturday Vespers, January 7, 2012 – Isaiah 35:1-10 – St. George the Chozebite
Fr. Deacon Theophan Warren, All Saints Orthodox Church, Chicago, Illinois
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
As we continue our celebration of the glorious feast of Christ’s baptism in the Jordan, and the revelation of the worship of the Holy Trinity this evening, my brothers and sisters in Christ, I thought it fitting to preach on this passage from the thirty-fifth chapter of the Prophet Isaiah. I would contend that in this one single chapter of Holy Scripture, the whole of salvation history is contained, along with the prophetic vision of the eschatological end of this world, and the beginning of the next. Of course, I do not mean to say that every detail of the history of salvation is contained herein, but let us briefly examine this passage tonight under three headings:
- The Church as desert
- The Church as Living Water
- The Highway of the Lord
Let us then speak about the Church as desert. There are several senses in which the Church could be related to the image of the desert. Tonight, we will only examine just a few. In light of my previous comment about the history of salvation, I would point out two ways that the Church could be referred to as desert in relation to history. The first image that likely comes to mind when we mention the word “desert” in reference to Holy Scripture, is the epic adventure narrative that we find in the book of Exodus. Here we have an enslaved people, who have been trodden upon for centuries by tyrant rulers, who are suddenly noticed by God. They are not only noticed in their travail, but through the process of divine revelation, they come to find out that they have actually been chosen by God. Out of the midst of both the Egyptian and Hebrew people God chose to show a man how he was going to change the history of not only these two peoples, but of all peoples who had or ever would be born on earth.
And where did God choose to reveal to the man Moses, His intention of saving the people of Israel? After many centuries of relative silence from the time of that important revelation that Abraham had received from God about a promise, it was in the desert that God chose to reveal Himself to the world as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the God who referred to Himself as I AM. Thus, it was fitting that after Moses had received this revelation from God in the desert, and gone on and accomplished His will in Egypt, that he lead the people of God, the ancient Church, back out into the desert to seek Him and His promises.
Although the Israelites were accompanied by the power of God in His might against the forces of Pharaoh and all spiritual darkness, having crossed through the midst of the Red Sea in triumph and having undergone a second birth as a people, they soon began to find that they were not suited to the life of the desert. In grumblings, and murmurings, they began to rebel against the God of their salvation, and one by one began to die in the desert wilderness. They found themselves unequipped for the journey, both in material, and in spiritual necessities. And through the course of a forty year journey, an entire generation of the ancient Church would find that while they had been delivered from a physical enslavement, they were still bound and chained by sin and death. This then is an example of one sense in which the ancient Church can be viewed as desert.
If the people of the ancient Church of God could be seen as desert, with all the helps and promises that they had been given, what then could be said about those who out in the larger world consisted of the Gentile Nations, the “ethnoi”, those who sat in a much greater darkness, but would be called in time just the same? Holy Scripture often refers to the lands of the Nations as desert. Although the geographical sense would apply in some cases, we must read these references in the spiritual sense, of a land of bleakness, spiritual dryness, a land overrun and ruled by dragons, beasts, and demons, a land devoid of nourishing water, where every element seems bent upon the destruction of the lives of men. In this kind of darkness, and under these conditions, men will turn to images of wood and stone for help, not knowing their left hand from their right. It is in this sense then that we who are not descended in blood from Abraham, were found to also be children of the desert, along with the ancient Hebrews. Although it would not be wholly accurate, still in light of these reflections, it would not be entirely wrong to describe all of human history before the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ as desert time. And yet, God heard the earth, and all the souls of all the peoples of the earth, crying out to him from “a dry and weary land where no water is” (Psalm 62:1), and He answered them.
Secondly, let us now turn to the image of the Church as Living Water. If we know that the Ancient Church was in a sorrowful sense, a “bride unwedded”, then we can assume that with the coming of Her Groom and Messiah (He being both God and Man), that both the material and spiritual cosmological landscape would be gloriously changed forever. How fitting it was, that at the beginning of His ministry, our Lord Jesus Christ should bless all the waters of the earth by His mere presence in it. By this blessing, through His voluntary baptism by the hand of St. John, His own servant and creature, He turned the desert of history, and the hearts of men into lush pastures and verdant gardens, which would be ready to receive His Word. Thus, the Prophet says to us tonight “Be glad, you thirsty desert, and rejoice exceedingly, and let the desert blossom as a lily. The desert places of the Jordan shall blossom abundantly and rejoice exceedingly (vs. 1-2)…For water shall burst forth in the desert, and a valley in the thirsty land. The waterless desert shall become meadows, and the thirsty land springs of water. There will be gladness of birds, a habitation of reeds and marshes.” (vs. 6-7) The great Gardener had appeared on the scene, and was able finally to provide the Living Water that was needed to let Life thrive in men.
At the perfect time, a baptism surpassing that of John the Baptist had been introduced, which would initiate men into the Life of God forever. Just as Moses lead the people out into the desert to seek God, so too did John lead men into the wilderness to seek repentance. But it was only through the humble act of the Son of God, the Son of Man; that the worship of the Trinity was made manifest. Thus, the Living Water Himself was able to give power to His Body, the Church, to pour out this gift upon all men who thirst for truth and life. At the perfect time, both the Hebrew people, and the “ethnoi” of the Nations, were granted a Divine washing, which was to fulfill the commandment which God had given to the Prophet Isaiah, which could not be fulfilled by their own efforts: “Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean. Put away the evils from your souls before My eyes. Cease from your evils. Learn to do good. Seek judgment and redeem the wronged. Defend the orphan and justify the widow. Come now, and let us reason together”, says the Lord, “although your sins are like crimson, I shall make them white like snow, and although they are as scarlet, I shall make them white like wool. If you are obedient, you shall eat the good things of the land.” (Isaiah 1:16-19)
Christ not only becomes the Great Gardener, but also the Judge according to Isaiah. He says “My people shall see the glory of the Lord and the majesty of our God (vs. 35:2)…Behold, our God renders judgment and will render it (35:4).” To whom is God rendering judgment? He comes to judge the Prince of the power of this world, who in the time of the desert of history ruled over men. He is judged and battle ensues in the waters of the Jordan. Just as Pharaoh was overthrown in the waters of the Red Sea, Satan is beaten and warned of his final defeat in the waters of a quiet river in the wilderness of the Jordan.
Lastly, let us examine this phrase, the “way of the Lord”. Certain translations render this phrase “the highway of the Lord”. The translation I read for you tonight from the Orthodox Study Bible says “A pure way shall be there, and it shall be called a holy way”. Christ descends into the waters of Jordan, to initiate and bless the Life in Christ for all men. This Life is the true High Way for all men, and blessed are we to be born under such a blessing, we who have been granted to be born and raised in the verdant gardens of the Church, who no longer have to wander aimlessly and hopelessly in the desert.
What signs were the people of earth told to expect to see when this came to pass? Isaiah had encouraged them eight centuries earlier to “Be strong, you weak hands and feeble knees. Be comforted, you fainthearted. Be strong, do not fear (vs. 3-4)…He will come and save us. Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall hear. Then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the dumb shall speak clearly (vs. 4-6). When St. John the Baptist sends his disciples to Jesus, to ask Him if He is the One, or if they should look for another, Jesus tells them to bear witness to John that these very signs are occurring by His hand.
St. Cyril of Alexandria (5th century) makes a peculiar comment regarding those who hear these words, and will “leap like a deer”. He says “those who formerly did not keep to the straight and narrow, but had a limited mentality, will bound like deer, meaning that they will be agile and nimble (in a spiritual sense, that is), and furthermore become snake killers, and fluent speakers. What does he mean by the term “snake killers”? In the ancient world, deer were known for two peculiar things. Firstly, it was believed that they ate snakes. And partially because of this diet, they were also known for having an insatiable thirst for springs of water. Just one example of this from antiquity is seen in another of St. Cyril’s comments on Isaiah, where he likens the disciples of God to deer saying “Now they are very rightly compared to deer, an animal that kills snakes and is habitually fond of springs of water; this is the way with everyone devoted to God and appropriately equipped to do away with the spiritual dragon, by overthrowing his eminence, and rendering powerless and ineffectual the venom of his innate malice (pg. 269 vol. 2).”
For this reason, it is fascinating to find that there are numerous ancient baptismal fonts from the early centuries of the Church still in existence that contain images of deer with snakes in their mouths.
Many of you, who have read the Harry Potter books, will recall what animal Harry shows forth in his Patronus, an image which has the power to disperse the evil demon-like creatures, the Dementors. As was the case with his father before him, his Patronus figure is a stag, a male deer. The stag was used as a symbol for Christ in much of ancient and medieval literature. If you have read the seventh book of the Harry Potter series, perhaps you will recall how when all hope and direction seems lost, Harry is led one night by a doe, a female deer, to a frozen pond. In the bottom of the pond, in the moonlight that is shining through the ice, Harry can just make out the image of a silver cross. In homage to C. S. Lewis, and the baptism of Eustace Scrubb by Aslan, in the Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Rowling has Harry break through the ice, and descend into the freezing water to seek the cross (which is actually a very special sword, which is used by someone else later in the book to cut off the head of a very large snake!). Harry does battle in the waters with an evil burden that he carries, and dies a figurative death. He is pulled from the waters by a friend he thought he’d lost, and upon his emergence from the water, everything has suddenly changed, and he now has direction. His purification through each of the seven books leads him to this moment, where he now knows that he can go forth and defeat the evil Lord Voldemort, who is more snake than man.
Upon the highway of the Lord, no ravenous beast or wicked man may tread. This is the path that we are to follow, which is the Life in Christ. If we follow obediently upon this highway, we will rejoice with the Psalmist and say
“How precious is Thy steadfast love, O God! The children of men take refuge in the shadow of Thy wings. They feast on the abundance of Thy house, and Thou givest them drink from the river of Thy delights. For with Thee is the fountain of life; in Thy light shall we see light. (Psalm 36:7-9)”
In the waters of the Jordan, the deserts burst forth with water, and history is changed forever. The highway of the Lord is revealed, and Isaiah proclaims forever that “the redeemed shall walk in it, and those gathered by the Lord shall return and come to Zion with gladness, and with everlasting gladness over their head. For praise and exceeding joy will be on their head, and gladness shall possess them. Pain, sorrow, and sighing have fled away. (vs. 9-10).”
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.